Known as the King of the Gimmicks, producer/director William Castle will surely be remembered for such B staples as House on Haunted Hill (1959), The Tingler (also ’59) and 13 Ghosts (1960), cheap but fun pictures with added pleasure for the moviegoer by the use of ingenious devices such as Emergo, Percepto, and Illusion-O. It’s only fitting that he ended his career as co-writer/producer of Jeannot Szwarc’s Bug (1975), a nature gone amok flick that becomes a Weird-O halfway through to detail a descent into madness.
Distributed by Paramount Pictures in June, Bug didn’t make much of a dent in the summer box office, bringing in a little over $3.6 million and infuriating critics. Richard Eder of The New York Times called it “sick, and literally sickening.” Some people just can’t handle arson prone killer cockroaches, I guess. Never mind them, because the rest of us get to revel in PG rated mayhem that once again proves there’s nobody less efficient than a sleeping MPAA advisor.
College professor James Parmiter (Bradford Dillman – Piranha) drops his wife Carrie (Joanna Miles – Judge Dredd) off at church on a blisteringly hot Sunday morning. Not soon after she arrives, an earthquake hits (leaving the preacher feeling pretty damn smug, I imagine) the whole community and the service is dismissed. We cut to a local farm where the ground has split in two, releasing a horde of hard shelled creepers that blanket the area. In quick order we discover that they’re quite combustible, and set ablaze various farmers, trucks, and an unfortunate kitty.
A former student of Parmiter’s, Metbaum (Richard Gilliland – Airplane II), brings him a deceased firebug to study; discovering that they can’t reproduce, everyone figures that they’ll just die out naturally and that will be that. Except one of the bugs flame broils Carrie (spoiler! Sorry, slow reflexes) leaving Parmiter on a mission to study and destroy the roaches. But will his obsession lead to his destruction? WILL IT?
The first half of Bug is pure, unfiltered Castle. A lot of dramatic fire, flames, and fatalities, guaranteeing it a spot in the Naughty Nature Sweepstakes. If it had stayed on this path for the remainder, there’s a chance this may have resonated more with the popcorn crowd. But instead of having the subterranean critters invade the town en masse (as is standard operating procedure with this type of flick), Szwarc and Castle decide to go insular and focus purely on Parmiter and his steadfast determination. The only problem is his determination deteriorates to madness as he tries to crossbreed in an effort to tame the little buggers. Holing himself up in a remote cabin, Parmiter becomes the epitome of insanity (accompanied by a fantastic beard) when each experiment produces the same maddening results – or so he thinks. You see, the roaches begin a metamorphosis that transforms them not only into meat eaters, but first rate communicators with their human host, leading to a breathtaking finale that’s quite unnerving for a picture of this ilk.
Both halves of Bug are fascinating; the first leaning heavily on the old school hysterics that were Castle’s specialty, the back half a grimmer affair where the action slows considerably. Parmiter develops a God Complex after the death of his wife, but the opportunity to venture along a heady theological path goes mostly unexplored; the film seems set up to position the bugs as the denizens of hell with Parmiter as their ultimate savior, but beyond a pass at the church and a couple of Bible nods, it treads through the secular world. This isn’t a fault but a fact; perhaps the novel the film is based on, The Hephaestus Plague (1973), offers a spiritual correlation that the commercially minded Castle just couldn’t bear to insert.
So we’re left with a front end confident in its genre credentials, and a back end reluctant to dig beneath its rural surface. This is where Dillman comes in, who ties the two strands together into a more or less cohesive whole, even as it becomes Partimer’s Insect Side Show. He remains just this side of broad in a couple of scenes, tempering the rest as a sad eyed frustration with his inability to save the world. Hell, he can’t even save himself.
But let’s not bring the mood down too much, shall we? This was Castle’s final work, and he leaves behind a film that never forgets, at the end of the reels, that it’s called Bug. And this being the ‘70s, a PG rating was not synonymous with good taste or manners; here there be fiery explosions, wrong numbers, and fatal postal services, all starring our combustible cockroaches, plus a chilling final evolution captured with eerie style by Szwarc. It’s a shame audiences at the time didn’t line up for Bug. Perhaps Castle should have displayed his true nature one last time and put a flaming roach under every chair. It may not have kept them in the seats, but I can’t think of a better way to exit.
Bug is available on DVD from Paramount.